Unidentified Exploding Object

06 30 tunguskaToday is the anniversary of what is known as the Tunguska Event. It is named for the Tunguska river in a very remote area of Siberia. On June 30th 1908, it was the site of a massive explosion. The blast destroyed 830 square miles (2,150 sq km) of forest. It is the largest such event in recorded history and, even now, no one can really agree on what caused it. Luckily it was such a sparsely populated area that no fatalities were reported, and hopefully this is because there weren’t any.

Because it happened in such an isolated place, and because Russia was facing a period of extreme political upheaval at the time, no one visited the area to investigate the cause until 1921. There are a few eyewitness reports of the event. This is what a man named Semyon Borisovich Semyonov had to say when he was interviewed in 1930:

“…the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest. The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire northern side was covered with fire. At that moment I became so hot that I couldn’t bear it, as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few metres.”

Among those who witnessed the event, a few said they had seen an object in the sky, To some it was a red fiery ball, to others it seemed to be shaped like a tube and was blue or white in colour. Many agreed that it was too bright to look at. Most people just heard it and described a noise like thunder, or like artillery fire, or falling rocks. The tremors were recorded all over the world. For three days afterwards, glowing clouds were seen in the night sky, so bright that it was possible to read a newspaper, all over Northern Europe. The name for clouds that glow in a dark sky is ‘Noctilucent Clouds’, which is lovely. Here is a picture of some…

06 30 noctilucent clouds

The explosion is thought to have been caused either by an exploding meteorite or a comet. Leonid Kulik, the first man to investigate the site, expected to find a huge crater in the middle of the area of devastation, but what he found was a clump of trees that were stripped bare but still standing. For miles around the trees had been knocked down in a direction away from the blast. It seems that what ever caused it had exploded in the air, stripping the trees directly below it, with the force radiating outwards when it hit the ground.

Some mineral samples taken in the area suggest a meteorite, but it is far from conclusive. The lack of any obvious impact sites and the reports of glowing clouds suggest a comet. The glow could have been caused by fragments of dust and ice from the comet in the upper atmosphere catching the sun’s rays. I did find an eyewitness report that claimed a new lake had been formed in the explosion, and that it boiled for two days. But this seems to have been dismissed. However, there is a lake nearby called Lake Cheko which may or may not have been created by a fragment of meteorite. A team of investigators from the University of Bologna believe they have identified a large rock, deep in the lake which may be a piece of the meteorite. They also have evidence from the sediment in the lake that it may be only a hundred years old, but because the area is far from any centre of population, nobody can be certain how long it’s been there.

There are many other explanations on offer. Some suggest that a cloud of natural gas, from under the earth’s crust, may have been forced to the surface and then been ignited by lightening. Others that it was caused by a scientist called Nikola Tesla, who claimed to have invented, and therefore perhaps tested, a weapon that could transmit electricity through the air. Among some of the even crazier theories are a black hole colliding with the earth, an exploding spaceship and a nuclear bomb that somehow travelled back in time and exploded over Siberia. What ever happened, we are incredibly lucky that it did not explode over a major city. St Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo are all on the same latitude, and could easily have been in the path of a comet, meteorite, spaceship or time-travelling bomb.

True or False?

06 10 false dmitry iYesterday, I wrote about Peter the Great and his efforts to drag his country out of its dark medieval past and into renaissance Europe. Today, I am still in Russia, with the story of another Tsar that illustrates just how dark and wild that past was. On this day in 1605, seventy-seven years before Peter was born, a person, who became known as False Dmitry I, arrived in Moscow and was made Tsar.

The story of False Dmitry isn’t exactly uplifting, but it is a good one. It reads like a bit like a Grimm’s fairytale but without the upbeat ending. To explain what happened, I need to go back a bit and begin with Ivan the Terrible. Ivan had a son, also called Ivan, who was heir to his throne. But, in 1581, they fell out and the Tsar accidentally killed his son by hitting him over the head with his sceptre. When Tsar Ivan died in 1584, he was survived by two sons, Feodor and Dmitry.

Feodor, the elder of the two, was made Tsar but wasn’t really cut out for the job. He is described variously as very religious or a bit simple. Whatever it was, the real power behind the throne lay with his father-in-law Boris Godunov. He had Dmitry and his mother sent into exile. It is possible that Godunov saw young Dmitry as a threat to his power but Dmitry wasn’t really in line for the throne. The Russian Orthodox church only allowed three marriages and Ivan had been married either seven or eight times. I wish I could tell you that his ex-wives lived long and happy lives, free from a husband whose second name was ‘the Terrible’, but, for the most part, they didn’t. Dmitry was the son of his last wife and would have been considered illegitimate.

06 10 tzarevich dmitryThen, in 1591, there was a terrible tragedy, or murder, we don’t know which. Nine-year-old Dmitry was somehow stabbed in the throat and died. According to his mother, Godunov had him killed. According to Gudunov, the boy stabbed himself, after suffering an epileptic seizure whilst playing with a knife. But there was a third possibility, that Godunov’s assassins got hold of the wrong person and Dmitry escaped.

In 1598 Feodor died, childless, and Boris began to rule in his own right. Things went pretty well for Boris at first but, in 1601, there was a terrible drought and all the crops failed. This was followed by the drought of 1602 and in 1603, unfortunately, a drought. It was a terrible time for the Russian people, around a third of the population starved to death and those who survived were feeling pretty unhappy. Boris died in 1605 and was succeeded by his son who was also, confusingly, called Feodor.

06 10Meanwhile, a man claiming to be Dmitry turned up in Poland. He claimed that he had not died at all but had been spirited away and sent to a monastery. He gathered an army, killed the remaining Godunovs and took the throne. His mother recognised him immediately as her long lost son. But we must take into account that she had been stuck in a convent for years, so a new life as mother of the Tsar must have been quite appealing. The reign of False Dmitry I was pretty short, less than a year. He married a Polish woman called Marina Mniszech who failed to convert to the Russian Orthodox religion. Rumours spread that he was about to form an alliance with Poland, which was not a good thing, and, even worse, that he planned to reunite the Orthodox Church with the Catholic faith. Then another rumour grew, probably fuelled by the Russian Orthodox Church, that Dmitry was about to gather together all his Polish friends, lock the gates of the city of Moscow and slay every Russian inside. That obviously fuelled a lot of unrest and, on 17 May 1606, loads of people stormed the Kremlin. The Tsar tried to escape by leaping from a window. The painting above illustrates the last moments of his life. He is the one in yellow. Dmitry, or whoever he really was, broke his leg in the fall and was killed by his enemies. His body was put on display before being burnt. Then his ashes were then put into a cannon and fired towards the Polish border. His wife escaped and returned to her home country.

If you’re wondering why he is called False Dmitry I, it’s because at least another two False Dmitrys appeared after that. False Dmitry II was also found in Poland, in 1607. Interestingly by the Father-in Law of False Dmitry I. When he introduced this Dmitry to his daughter, she immediately recognised her lost husband. And why wouldn’t she? False Dmitry II was killed in 1610. But then, in 1611, yet another death-cheating Dmitry popped up. If this was a fairytale, the third Dmitry would have turned out to be the real one and everyone would have lived happily ever after. But it isn’t and False Dmitry III was executed in 1612. The period of history between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 is referred to as ‘the Time of Troubles’.

The Great

06 09 peter the greatToday is the the birthday of Peter the Great, who was born on this day in 1672. I’ve mentioned Peter a few times already when I wrote about about the Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, Frederic Ruysch and the Alaska Purchase. His official title is so ridiculously long that I’m not even going to tell you what it was. So I’ll just stick with ‘Emperor of all the Russias’. But what would you think if I told you that the Emperor of all the Russias spent eighteen months of his reign travelling around Europe in disguise working in dockyards? Well, I am going to tell you that, in a minute.

Peter inherited the throne from his half brother and, from the age of ten, shared the title of Tsar with another step brother. But the real power behind the throne, literally, was his older step sister. There was a hole cut in the back of their double throne and she used to sit behind it and tell them what to say. She later tried to overthrow both of them and got sent to a convent. Then, in 1696, his brother died and Peter became sole ruler. Like anyone who goes about calling themselves ‘the Great’ he wasn’t an entirely good person. He once personally beheaded two hundred people with an axe. But let’s not focus on that.

He seems to have spent most of his reign either trying to start a war or fighting one. His problem was, that although Russia was a vast country, full of all sorts of resources that people might want to buy, exporting them was difficult. What Peter really wanted were ships, he really liked ships, and the only place he could have ships was the port of Arkhangelsk on the northern coast. That wasn’t ideal, because it was ice bound for a large part of the year. What he needed was either a bit of Sweden or to overthrow the Ottoman Empire so he could have access to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. So he thought it might be a good idea to start some wars. But he would need allies.

In 1697, Peter organised his ‘Grand Embassy’ which was an entourage of around two hundred and fifty people, including himself. They set off on an eighteen month journey around Europe looking for support for his plan. The Tsar was travelling incognito, calling himself Peter Mikhailov. But I don’t imagine his disguise fooled many people as Peter was unusually tall at 6′ 7”. They didn’t have much luck. People were far too worried about who was going to be the next King of Spain after the unfortunate Charles II, who wasn’t very well at all.

It wasn’t a wasted journey though, because Peter got to see Europe. Russia was, at that time, still stuck in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance had passed it by. Peter was the first Russian ruler to leave his country in a hundred years and he was impressed by what he saw. When I try to imagine what that would have been like for him, I think about how I would have felt if someone had given me the internet in 1973. Peter loved two things, well, three things, but we’ll get to that. He loved ships and he loved the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that wealthy people had begun to collect. When he visited the Netherlands, which was a massively important sea-faring nation, he managed to get hands on experience on how ships were built He also recruited skilled workers, who would be able to help him with his plans for a Russian Navy.

06 09 peter and jacobBut it was also in the Netherlands that he got to see how Europeans really lived. In Amsterdam, he met Jacob de Wilde who had a huge collection of books, statues and scientific instruments. Peter was fascinated. Jacob’s daughter made this engraving in commemoration of their meeting. There, he met Jan van der Heyden, who invented the fire hose. That might not sound very significant, but Peter’s capital, Moscow, was a wooden city and fires were quite a problem. He also met one of my favourite Dutch anatomists, Frederik Ruysch, who taught him how to catch butterflies and how to pull teeth. On a second, later, visit, he bought up Ruysch’s entire, extremely odd, collection and shipped it back to Russia.

After that, Peter went to London, where he also studied shipbuilding, in the dockyards of Deptford. This brings us to Peter’s third favourite thing. Drinking. Peter and his men were lodged in a house that belonged to John Evelyn. If you want a historical handle on him, he’s the other man, apart from Samuel Pepys, who wrote a diary that tells us about the Great Fire of London. John Evelyn loved his home, and had spent many years creating its beautiful garden. Peter and his entourage, which I now realise I’ve neglected to mention, included six trumpeters, four dwarves and a monkey, managed to drunkenly wreck the entire place during their short stay. They broke the windows and doors. They tore and burnt the tapestries and ripped up the mattresses. They blew up the kitchen floor. After they left, every single one of the fifty chairs in the house had gone missing. In the garden, they tore up Evelyn’s bowling green and they destroyed his pride and joy, a holly hedge, which they wrecked by pushing each other through it in wheelbarrows. Evelyn was paid £305 9s 6d in compensation, including £3 for “wheelbarrows broke by the Czar”

During his stay in London, he also met with Edmund Halley, of comet fame, who probably helped a bit with the wrecking of Evelyn’s house, so there’s a side of him we haven’t seen. While in England, Peter also visited Manchester. I couldn’t find out what he did there, other than learn how proper cities were built. Despite his behaviour, Peter left England with the gift of a ship and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, in Law, of all things.

Peter had to cut his visit short because of a threatened uprising back in Russia. On his way, he managed to forge an alliance against Sweden with the King of Poland, who was called Augustus the Strong. The rebellion was over by the time he got back, but he set about modernising his country. He outlawed arranged marriages amongst the nobility. He made them wear wigs and European clothes. If he caught them wearing coats with long sleeves, he cut them off with a pair of scissors. He also tried to make them shave off their long beards. Anyone who wanted to keep their beards had to pay a ‘beard tax’ and keep a token with them to prove that they’d paid it. On one side it said ‘the beard tax has been taken’, on the other, ‘the beard is a superfluous burden’.

He also changed the calender in 1699. The Russians had an odd calender, based on the Byzantine one. They reckoned the year from the supposed date of creation. So for them, it was the year 7207. He also changed the date of New Year from September 1st to January 1st, something we didn’t do in England until 1752. So December 31st 7207 was followed by January 1st 1700. It was a big change for everyone. Peter had taken up the practice of smoking and when people saw him with smoke coming out of his mouth, some thought their Tsar had been captured and replaced by the Devil.

Maybe, we’ll leave Peter there. Just before he picks up that axe and starts swinging it. And before he starts forcing everyone to build him a big city in the middle of nowhere. Except, I have one more wild story to tell you. In 1701, while visiting his friend Augustus the Strong, they went on a three day drinking binge which ended with a cannon-shooting competition. Augustus won.

Money for Nothing, Gold for Free

03 30 alaskaIn the early hours of March 30th 1867 the United States agreed on a deal to purchase Alaska from the Russians. There were those who thought that it was a waste of money. But the price of $7.2 million was ridiculously low, amounting to around two cents an acre. The Russians really wanted to sell. Although Alaska isn’t very far from the east coast of Russia, it was a long way from their centre of government and their colony there was hard to defend. They feared they would lose it anyway, perhaps to the Americans, perhaps to the British, who had territories just next door in British Columbia. The Russians had, in the 1850s, lost to the British in the Crimean War and they definitely didn’t want them to have it.

03 30 seal skin notesRussia’s interest in Alaska stretched back to the previous century. It was one of the final acts of Peter The Great, in 1728, to send an expedition to find out if Russia was attached by land to North America. He sent a man named Vitus Bering who, after an incredibly difficult journey, found out that is wasn’t. In the 1730s, Bering set out on another journey, this time crossing the strait that now bears his name. He reached Alaska in 1741, but died on the return voyage. What the Russians were particularly interested in was the fur trade and they quickly colonised the coast of Alaska and set up trading posts. They set up a company called The Russian-American Company which dealt in walrus ivory and animal skins. It had it’s own flag and it’s own unusual currency which was made from seal skin. Their relationship with the indigenous people of Alaska was, to say the least, strained and by the nineteenth century, they were facing competition from British Columbia. Russian America became too expensive to maintain and it was just too far away.

When it was suggested that the United States acquire the territory, some Americans felt the same way about it. They too were recovering from the effects of war. They were trying to pull their country back together following the American Civil War. Alaska, which they considered to be a wasteland, was not even connected by land to the rest of the United States. Dissenters thought the land would be worth nothing. They thought it wasn’t worth having even if the Russians were giving it away. They called it ‘Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden’. They also called it ‘Seward’s Icebox’ and ‘Seward’s Folly’. Andrew Johnson was their president and William Seward was Secretary of State. It was Seward who signed the treaty. Those in favour of the agreement were happy to see yet another ruling country kicked off what they increasingly thought of as ‘their’ continent and it is likely they hoped the British would be next.

03 30 nome gold rushThe Alaska Purchase turned out to be a good thing for America. Alaska is huge and, overnight, the country had become 20% bigger. $7.2 million is a pretty good deal, even if it does include quite a lot of lakes and glaciers. America easily recouped the money from the fur trade. But then, in 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike on the border between Alaska and Canada. Thousands of prospectors travelled through Alaska. It was a gruelling journey over steep mountain passes and when they got there, they weren’t allowed in unless they had a year’s worth of food supplies with them. So, plenty of boom towns sprang up along the route and there was a good living to be made by anyone prepared to help them carry all their stuff. Then, in 1899, there was a second rush at Nome on the coast. Much of the gold found there was just lying around on the beach. Over the years, the area surrounding Nome has produced around 112 metric tonnes of gold. Not bad for two cents an acre.

The Art of Dying

03 28 ruyschToday is the birthday of Frederick Ruysch who was born in 1638 in The Hague. Someone who had himself painted pulling the insides out of a dead baby might seem like an unlikely candidate for ‘Why Today is Brilliant’, but bear with me. Ruysch is the last of three peculiar Dutch anatomists who I first stumbled upon last summer. They all studied at the university of Leiden in the 1660s. I have written about Reinier de Graaf and Jan Swammerdam elsewhere and how they fell out about who had discovered that humans had ovaries. As anatomists, what they really needed were corpses to dissect, but they were difficult to come by, had a disappointingly short shelf life and were rather expensive. They all became involved in finding a way to preserve anatomical specimens. They devised a way of injecting melted wax into blood vessels. When it cooled and set, they had something that they could dissect. It was a method that revealed delicate structures that had never been seen before. They stained the wax red to make the results a bit more lifelike. While de Graaf and Swammerdam were arguing about the nature of human reproduction, Ruysch was doing something else. He was making dioramas out of body parts.

03 28 vesaliusHis work was not entirely unprecedented. There were anatomical texts that showed bodies in dramatic poses. Take a look at this one from ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ by Andreas Vesalius which was published in 1543. But Ruysch had found a way of presenting actual specimens. He found a material that was even better than wax for injecting. It reached even the tiniest of vessels and, when coloured, gave a life-like quality to the whole specimen. He was pretty secretive about it, so no one is quite sure what it was. It may have included Berlin blue, mercury oxide and clotted pigs blood. But I’ve also come across mentions of spirits of Zeus and Poseidon. I have no idea what these are, if you do, I’d love to know. Later, he invented a clear liquid that he used to store his body parts in jars. It kept them soft and more life-like. He referred to it as ‘liquor balsamicum’ and I haven’t a clue what was in that either. It must have been good because some of his wet specimens still survive after more than three hundred years.

Ruysch amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens. Initially, they were used only for medical study but when non-medical people heard about them, they wanted to see for themselves. He eventually displayed them in a series of cabinets in a private museum. Physicians were allowed free admission and, if they were particularly interested, could attend lectures given by Ruysch. The general public would pay an admission fee and be shown around by his daughter.

So far I have only mentioned anatomical specimens in the vaguest terms, and I promised you dioramas…

L0023489 F. Ruysch, Opera omnia anatomico-medico...
image credit: wellcome images

The centre piece of each cabinet was a little tableau, each of which conveyed some idea of the fleeting nature of human life. The main feature of these were foetal skeletons arranged in various poses. They would be playing the violin, clutching a string of pearls, weeping into a handkerchief. Ruysch actually had access to a lot of foetal skeletons as, in 1668, he was made chief instructor to the midwives of Amsterdam. (He managed to collect and preserve foetuses at all stages of development.) The rest of the scene was made up from bladder, kidney and gallstones for rocks, preserved blood vessels for trees and preserved lung tissue for grass and bushes. Even the handkerchiefs that his tiny skeletons were weeping into were made from the membrane that covers the brain. It all seems rather macabre, but this was not Ruysch’s intention at all. He saw them as beautiful objects that would: “allay the distaste of people who are naturally inclined to be dismayed by the sight of corpses.” It worked too. His anatomical preparations, partly teaching aid, partly works of art, did go a long way towards dispelling some of the stigma attached to the study of anatomy.


As well as doctors and the general population of Amsterdam his museum was frequented by the rich and famous. In 1697, he was visited by Peter the Great. Peter had a keen interest in all things scientific. Ruysch taught him how to catch and preserve butterflies and they had a common interest in lizards. The Tsar liked what he had seen so much that he returned for a second visit in 1717 and bought the entire collection for 30,000 guilders. Ruysch’s collection was installed in Tsar Peter’s Kunstkamera in St Petersburg where it helped to introduce ideas of European Enlightenment and modern sciences to Russia.

Ruysch immediately began to build a new collection. After his death in 1731, it was sold to Augustus the Strong, King of Poland. It is from Peter the Great’s collection that some of Ruysch’s specimens still survive. If you visit this site, you can see some photographs of a few of them. There is the hand of a child clutching the heart of an unborn baby. To cover the place where the hand was cut off there is a beautiful lace cuff that was probably made by his daughter. Some of the site is in English, though you will have the advantage of me if you speak Dutch. Sadly none of his dioramas have survived the test of time but luckily, they were carefully recorded in a series of drawings by Cornelius Huyberts, which is a good thing, otherwise you might not have believed me.

03 28 diorama 1

Heavenly Choir

03 09 ivan ivanovitchGoodness, March is turning out to be quite the month for space travel. On this day in 1961,the Russians launched their spacecraft Sputnik 9. At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a huge race between Russia and the United States to be the first nation to launch a human into space. Everyone needed to learn a lot about space flight; what it would do to a human body, how to make a successful landing, and they needed to learn it quickly. Sputnik 9 was not a manned space flight, but it was an important and interesting step along the way. On March 9th 1961, a dummy was launched into space. He was named Ivan Ivanovich which is the Russian equivalent of ‘John Doe’ or ‘Joe Bloggs’.

People who were working in the space programmes were worried about the effects of the lack of gravity on the human body, about the presence of radiation and also that a human confined in a tiny capsule so far away from earth would succumb to what they called ‘space madness’. As much as they wanted to send a person into space, they wanted that person to come back safe and well. The Russians tested and retested their equipment and their final test was to send something as human as possible in an orbit around the earth.

Ivan was made mostly from metal with bendable joints because they needed to dress him in a space suit. He had a skin of synthetic leather and a detachable head. His head, they decided to make as lifelike as possible. He had eyes and eye brows, even eyelashes. Then they thought about what might happen if he crash landed in a remote area. Someone might think he was a real human, even an alien. So they taped a big label over his face with the word ‘maket’ which means mock-up. To make sure that space travel was as safe as possible for organic life, Ivan had companions. Because space was at a premium inside the capsule, they used cavities inside his body to carry forty white mice, forty black mice, some guinea pigs, various reptiles, human blood cells, human cancer cells, yeast and bacteria. In addition to this, they sent a dog with him called Chernushka, which means ‘Blackie’.

Apart from testing how all these life forms would fare, the safety of the capsule and of the space suit, they also needed to test the ejector seat mechanism that would be used on landing. Sputnik 9, could not land safely, so the pilot would need to be ejected, along with a parachute before the capsule reached the ground. Ivan could also carry, within his body, instruments that measured things like acceleration and radiation levels but they also needed to test communication between the capsule and the ground. For this, Ivan would need a voice. They knew that their transmissions would be picked up by western countries, so they had to think carefully about what Ivan would say. If it sounded like a coded message, people might think they had secretly launched a human into space and that they were being spied upon. Perhaps, they thought, a tape of someone singing a song. This was rejected because anyone who intercepted the transmission might think they had sent up a cosmonaut who had succumbed to space madness. Their solution was simple and rather beautiful. They fitted Ivan with a tape that would play a whole choir singing. There was no way anyone would think that they had sent a whole choir into space inside one tiny capsule.

So, Ivan Ivanovich was first launched into space on March 9th 1961. Sputnik 9 made a single orbit of the Earth in a journey that lasted a little over an hour and a half. The mission was a success, the ejector seat and parachute worked and the dummy was recovered. You’ll be happy to know that Chernushka, the dog, who crash-landed along with the craft also survived.

A second trial was made on March 25th. This time Ivan was accompanied by a dog called Zvezdochka which means ‘little star’. The dog was given this name by Yuri Gagarin who would, less than three weeks later, become the first human in space. This time, they added to the choir recording, a recipe for cabbage soup, either to make the message even more confusing, or because they thought the world needed to know how to make it properly. This flight was also a success and Zvezdochka also survived her trip. This time the recovery team were unable to get to the landing site, in the Ural mountains, for twenty four hours. The local people, who had watched a figure floating down in a parachute, arms and legs flailing, were very surprised when they approached the lifeless figure and opened his helmet, only to see the word ‘maket’ taped across his face.

Going South

09 20 bellinghausenToday is the birthday of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen who was born in 1778 in what is now Estonia. In 1820 he headed the first expedition to sight mainland Antarctica. I’ve read a lot about explorers and sea voyages researching this blog and the nineteenth century seems rather late to find a whole new continent. But of all the discoveries I’ve read about, it’s really the only recorded instance of someone finding a major land mass that was uninhabited. I could argue that none of the other famous adventurers we know about really ‘discovered’ anywhere because the places they encountered already had plenty of people living there.

09 20 Ortelius World MapFor centuries people believed that there was a large land mass to the south of the equator. Aristotle had postulated that the Earth was symmetrical, so there must be a land mass to the south to balance out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Although the idea that the earth was spherical dates back to at least the 6th century BC, no one in Europe was completely sure that it was possible to cross the equator into the Southern Hemisphere until the fifteenth century. The unknown landmass to the south is marked on early maps as Terra Australis Incognita and it’s enormous. It was not until 1487 that Europeans knew that Africa was not joined to this land mass, when Bartolomeu Dias made it round the Cape of Good Hope. Ferdinand Magellan assumed when, in 1520, he sailed through the Straits of Magellan, that the land to the south of him was part of Terra Australis. This was not disproved until 1615.

In the seventeenth century, the newly found region called New Holland was assumed to be part of the large continent in the south, but then in 1642, Abel Tasman sailed around to the south of it, proving it was not the case. In 1773 James Cook sailed as far south as the Antarctic circle, but found only ice. He declared that there was no landmass there at all and the name Australia was given instead to New Holland.

09 20 antarctic mapIn 1819 Bellinghausen, a captain in the Russian Navy, was chosen to lead a Russian expedition to the far south. He had already distinguished himself as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the world and had proved himself to be an excellent cartographer. His expedition was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle since Cook’s voyage. Bellinghausen sighted the coast of Antarctica on January 20th `1820. During his voyage he sailed right around the continent, proving that it was not connected to any other landmass. Belinghausen’s orders for the mission were to explore as far south as possible and to carry out ‘scientific work’. I haven’t managed to find out what the scientific work was, but he couldn’t possibly have fulfilled the ‘far south as possible’ part of his mission any better than he did. Yet the Russians seem to have been unimpressed on his return. It was ten years before his account of his voyage was published.